Historical trilogy of Norwegian Americans
Mørkhagen’s lengthy account of Norwegian-American immigration is an impressive feat
M. Michael Brady
“Surprisingly little is known about the Norwegian emigration to America, even by Norwegians. Most are familiar with the history, but not with the scope of it. Few realize that today there probably are more people of Norwegian heritage in America than there are Norwegians in Norway, or that Norwegians emigrated at a rate that was 3.5 times the average for European countries. Few know that toward the end of the days of sail, the death rate on Norwegian ships was many times that on English ships. Few know that one of the most horrific ship tragedies in modern times struck Norwegian emigrants a little more than a hundred years ago, that Norwegians were among the most popular immigrants in America, or that the total yearly gifts of money from Norwegian Americans to undertakings in Norway sometimes were comparable with the Norwegian national budget. Or that…
“There are many stories and likewise many motivations. So this book is of necessity comprehensive. We can only speculate on why we don’t know more about this gigantic emigration that took place over 150 years, with good reason. In the 30 years after the turn of the last century, more than 500,000 people ripped up their roots and traveled westward, of a population that at the time had barely reached two million. Why did it happen?”
So begins philologist Sverre Mørkhagen the preface of the first of the three volumes comprising his definitive history of the Norwegian American people. The trilogy is a scholarly tour de force, each of the three books with detailed end notes, supplementary information, comprehensive references, and an extensive index. Together they are monumental, each with an average page count of 602 and a weight of more than two pounds.
Despite the bulk of the material presented, author Mørkhagen’s pen is light. Throughout, peripheral observations set the storyline in perspective, such as the penchant of immigrant Norwegians to farm the land, while immigrant Irish tended to settle in cities. Overall, the trilogy makes up a collage of real-life stories with casts of compelling characters, some who went on to fame in their adopted homeland.
One such story starts early in the first book, on pages 120-121 of Farvel Norge (Farewell Norway). On May 17, 1837, Gro Jonsdatter Rue and her ten-year-old son Jon left their home in Tinn in Telemark to sail to America. Widowed, she could no longer support the Rue farm, a reason for forsaking it that she shared with most of the 57 others from Tinn who departed that day. She coped with her hard life, and her son Jon went on to be the cross-country skiing mail courier nicknamed “Snowshoe Thompson,” of whom there’s now a commemorative statue in Genoa, Nevada.
Scrolling forward through history and the books, in Drømmen om Amerika is the story of a group of 52 immigrants who arrived in New York on October 9, 1825, only to have their sailing vessel, the Restoration, impounded in customs. Apparently undaunted by the misfortune, they went on to found Kendall on the shore of Lake Ontario in New York state, the first Norwegian immigrant community in the U.S.
The Norwegian American culture of today emerges in the third book, Det norske Amerika. In 1925, a centennial celebration of the founding of Kendall marked the presence of Norwegian Americans in the demographic landscape of the country. Among the memorable names of the century are three Norwegian Americans. Elizabeth Fedde (1850-1921), born in Feda in southern Norway, was the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess who was summoned to New York in 1883 to found the Norwegian Relief Society to serve the immigrant community there.
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) was a second-generation Norwegian American, born to parents who had immigrated in 1847 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He went on to be educated in economics and sociology and became one of the outstanding economists of the 20th century. His first major book, Theory of the leisure class, was published in 1899 to become a benchmark critique of capitalism. He contributed much to the lingo of economics, most famously for being the first to speak of “conspicuous consumption.”
Most known was Knut Rockne (1888-1931), born in Voss, who at age five immigrated with his parents to Chicago. He attended the University of Notre Dame and played football there. The sport was his lifetime pursuit; he rose to be the Notre Dame football coach, so skilled that he became a legend in his own time. After he was killed in a plane crash, he was posthumously knighted by King Haakon VII of Norway, and in 1988 the U.S. Post Office honored him with a 22¢ stamp in commemoration of his contributions to the most American of sports.
Together the three books are both a reference on the era they document as well as a treasure trove of small stories of people and events. That they thus far are available only in the original Norwegian may be a barrier to their appreciation by English-speaking readers. In these days of widespread online availability of reference material, translating them into English might be a risky undertaking. But then, so were the undertakings of Norwegians who left their home country to amalgamate into the Norwegian American people. Translations may yet happen.
The three books by Sverre Mørkhagen:
• Farvel Norge, Utvandringen til Amerika 1825-1975 (Farewell Norway, Emigration to America 1825-1975), Oslo, Gyldendal, 2009, 660 page 6×9 in. hardcover, ISBN 978-82-05-36259-6
• Drømmen om Amerika, Innvandring fra Norge 1825-1900 (Dream of America, Immigration from Norway 1825-1900), Oslo, Gyldendal 2012,. 984 page 6×9 in. hardcover, ISBN 978-82-05-42698-6
• Det norske Amerika, Nordmenn i USA og Canada 1900-1975 (The Norwegian America, Norwegians in the USA and Canada 1900-1975), Oslo, Gyldendal 2014, 542 page 6×9 in. hardcover, ISBN 978-82-05-46844-3
This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.